A Vision for Birth – For the ABC, 2014
Birth-professional, doula, writer and therapist Riga Forbes discusses the benefits of relaxation in pregnancy and its physiological effects on the body in labour. She explores how we can reduce stress prior to birth by working with body, mind, heart and lifestyle.
How does a woman go about preparing for the birth of her new child? Is it a trip into town to shop for anything that’s been forgotten? Or going with the nesting instinct and getting the house into shape? Perhaps this time before birth looks more like reading a book about maternity or going to a yoga class for some space to relax and stretch-out the body in readiness for the big event?
Each woman will have a different route towards labour, for her own reasons and needs, and each route will leave her in a different state of mind, perhaps busy, tired, thoughtful, calm or ‘ready’. So my question is will this state of mind make any difference when she is ready to give birth and can our thoughts and feelings about the future affect the way in which our future unfolds?
In the case of birth we can think about this from a biological perspective; for example, if a woman is stressed about giving birth or is experiencing stress prior to labour, the higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin in her body will make the birth process more difficult because oxytocin, the key natural birth hormone which accelerates labour, will become inhibited.
The physiological reality is that keeping stress to a minimum from at least the last few weeks of pregnancy will hugely help to make it easier for a woman when labour comes. And life is not always stress-free; sometimes we have to simply find ways to relax in the midst of it all, which this can really take commitment, especially if we have children already,.
Having worked in the field of self-development for many years I have increasingly taken note of cause and effect around states of stress and relaxation and have arrived at the understanding that at times of stress, the present moment feels stuck and the future seems limited, while at times of relaxation the present moment feels easy and the future seems open and as if anything is possible!
In many ways this observation is purely common sense, it is simple and yet it can take a lot of effort to try and bring balance to our lifestyles if we are choosing to become more aware of our stress-levels and trying instead to tap into that feeling of ease and openness. If you were about to give birth would you rather be feeling stuck or at ease?
So how can we go about reducing stress in pregnancy? Well firstly relaxation techniques are vital and whatever works for you is best, from swimming to yoga, from dance to Tai chi; if it gives you a feeling of well-being then it’s the right thing for you. Just take care to approach whatever activity you do from a place of enjoyment rather than self-improvement; if you exercise for the feel-good factor involved it will nourish you so much more than if you are focussed on trying to lose weight or get fit. And gaining some weight in pregnancy gives your body the precious resources needed to enable your baby to grow healthily without depleting you as well as stocking you up for breastfeeding if that is the direction you wish to go in.
Secondly, I feel it is really helpful for women and families to take a wider view of their lifestyles and to notice where stress mounts up during their average daily routines. Once we have an idea about the origins of stress in our personal lives it gives us the opportunity to see how and where to make practical changes to reduce it. This may also mean taking maternity leave earlier than expected, or taking time-out at the weekends to ensure that you get some quality time with the family or alone.
Many families choose to move home when they are expecting, which on one hand is a natural part of the nesting instinct in pregnancy, but which can place a lot of added stress on both partners. If moving home becomes a necessity for you, I would suggest getting as much help as possible both with packing up and unpacking, to delay big re-decoration jobs and not to leave this task until the third trimester if you can.
And if your levels of stress in pregnancy seem to be more emotional, which can be the case when there is such an intense cocktail of hormones at work in the body, there are other approaches that can be helpful, including therapeutic techniques to overcome fears, previous birth-trauma and other problems.
And fear is an issue that pregnant women may experience when facing childbirth. So how do we approach this aspect of stress-reduction which seems less tangible than something like moving house?
Well lets’ start with the idea of our inner-environment. If we consider the “imagination” as a tool to see or try things out in our minds, almost like an inner projection screen where different scenarios are played out, then if we were feeling fear it would probably be because we were projecting fearful images onto this screen. But what if we could choose to change these pictures and bring in peaceful or joyful images instead? In the very same way we might be able to cultivate a sense of positivity and ease around birth before it happens. And if we could combine this kind of visualisation practice with deep relaxation, then we would ultimately have the chance to release a lot of stress or fear around how we believe our birth-experience could unfold.
As a birth-preparation facilitator I have witnessed the powerful effects of using “creative visualisation” and positive focus during pregnancy and birth as a way of calming the mind. Techniques like this help us to bypass fear and allow the body to relax enough for our hormonal team to get on with the game of birth.
There is no doubt in my mind that ‘how’ we are in pregnancy influences ‘how’ we are childbirth, which in turn influences ‘how’ our we are able to manage the early years of motherhood. Addressing stress is a primary factor in creating good influences at each stage in this journey, but the factors contributing to this stress may relate to several different areas of our lives, and each one is equally relevant. My hope is that more people begin to realise the great benefits of taking time to relax in pregnancy and to understand that the efforts we make to bring change in all areas will have lasting effects that are so worthwhile.